Queen Elizabeth Was No Mere Symbol

Queen Elizabeth Was No Mere Symbol

But after her death, fury erupted at those who refused to whitewash her legacy.


It was utterly unsurprising that the moment Buckingham Palace announced that Queen Elizabeth’s doctors were “concerned for Her Majesty’s health,” a gross amount of invective would be flung at Meghan Markle. Now that the queen has died, grief seems to be overshadowed in certain corners by the joy taken in blaming Markle for the passing of a 96-year-old woman whose health had been in decline over the past year. The Windsors’ brand has always been unmiscegenated whiteness as a proxy for imperial glory, and for royalists and racists both British and American, Markle’s entry into the family was a blemish on, even an invasion of, that monarchical legacy. So it was no surprise that #GoHomeMeghanMarkle trended, that a cluster of white women refused to shake Markle’s hand as she greeted mourners at Windsor Castle, that one viral tweet claimed it was “sickening” to watch her “pretending to be sad after making the Queen’s final years a misery.” Nor that those incidents were gleefully recounted by right-wing rags such as the UK’s Daily Mail and the New York Post.

How predictable, too, that the same hatred would be directed at people who responded to the queen’s death by forcing into view the brutal colonial legacies she presided over. On social media, while Paris Hilton was calling the queen “the original girlboss,” users from Black, Irish, and other diaspora communities subjugated under colonialism recalled the apartheid, famine, exploitation, and bloodshed inflicted by the British Empire and sustained during the queen’s seven-decade reign. There were reminders that the royals even today benefit from a transatlantic slave trade that still causes global Black suffering. (“‘Respect the dead’ when we’re all writing these Tweets *in English.* How’d that happen, hm?” one African American woman wrote. “We just chose this language?”) Some posters recalled that just after the queen took the throne in 1952, Britain established “brutal concentration camps in colonialist Kenya” that killed and tortured tens of thousands during the Mau Mau rebellion. A Twitter user detailed the stolen Indian gems among over 23,000 crown jewels—the most valuable, the Kohinoor diamond, sits at the center of the queen mother’s crown—and reminded readers that the British Empire had extracted “$45 trillion in wealth” from the country.

Others pointed out that neither the queen nor any other royal had “apologized for slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism” or provided “reparations for the millions of lives taken.” For someone whose primary role, as even her supporters acknowledge, was symbolic, the queen failed to use that symbolism to address that awful history.

In response, right-wing media here and abroad accused “woke haters” (Toronto Sun) of having “no shame” (Daily Mail) and “attacking Queen Elizabeth…because she lived during a better time” (Fox News). A YouTuber named Mike Partyka adopted the paternalism of the empire, writing, “Dear Black Twitter: If you can’t show a shred of human decency, you don’t deserve a shred of reparations.”

Uju Anya, a Carnegie Mellon University professor of Nigerian and Trinidadian descent, had family members among the casualties of the Biafran war. “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving, raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating,” Anya wrote in a tweet, adding, “If anyone expects me to express anything but disdain for the monarch who supervised a government that sponsored the genocide that massacred and displaced half my family and the consequences of which those alive today are still trying to overcome, you can keep wishing upon a star.”

A staggering amount of abuse toward Anya followed, including accusations that she was “blaming the whites for all [your] problems,” defenses of the queen’s innocence for merely holding a “ceremonial position,” and demands that she respect “our pain and mourning.” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos found it necessary to weigh in, writing to his 5 million followers, “This is someone supposedly working to make the world better?”

Demands that victims of British colonialism not speak of the empire’s crimes against humanity, the rapacious plunder that produced so many of the conditions that still drive Black and brown countries’ poverty, and its creation of racial, religious, and ethnic divisions in order to divide and conquer, suggest those harms don’t truly matter. Remaining silent would be a form of remaining colonized. Perhaps Bezos should ask why he felt compelled to defend the queen of a violent empire instead of those who suffered under its boot.

The queen’s apologists whitewash her legacy by insisting she was nonpolitical, but that’s just more talking over reality. Her Royal Majesty vetted more than 1,000 laws before they were given parliamentary approval. She secured exemptions for herself from laws requiring disclosure of her private fortune, compliance with climate regulations, prohibitions on racial and ethnic discrimination in hiring, and police searches for stolen artifacts. As late as 1968, Buckingham Palace barred “coloured immigrants” and “foreigners” from non-domestic employment—and because of the crown’s lack of transparency, it’s unclear whether the rule was ever lifted. Queen Elizabeth flexed her powers to obstruct an investigation of her son Prince Andrew on sexual abuse charges related to his association with Jeffrey Epstein. And in 2004, she asked the government for a grant from funds that were meant to help poor folks pay their energy bills. (She was turned down to avoid a “public relations backlash.”) For 70 years, the queen wrapped herself in the trappings of the monarchy, traveling the world to become its most recognized mascot and relying on stolen wealth. Her son Charles stands to inherit $27.5 billion tax-free based on the ludicrous idea of divine right. Because some dude named Cerdic of Wessex won a war back in 534 ad.

The queen doesn’t need defenders. The royals are fine. It’s those who were hurt by them who should finally be heard.

In exactly this way, history is overwritten and redacted, cherry-picked and edited to glorify those with power and to silence those without. The outpouring from the empire’s victims following the queen’s death was also the expression of generational trauma and of grief, pain, and loss—a collective refusal to ignore the suffering on which the empire was built and still flourishes. And, I must point out, it was all the truth.

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